Couples therapy can help couples improve their relationship in many ways. For instance, it helps couples resolve conflict, learn how to communicate effectively, better understand each other, enhance their emotional connection and strengthen their bond.
Naturally, couples may face obstacles in therapy that stall their progress. They may have inaccurate assumptions about how therapy works, which can keep them stuck. Or they may delay seeing a therapist in the first place, which only deepens their problems.
We asked two relationship experts to share the most common obstacles along with what couples can do to overcome them. Below you’ll find six obstacles and solutions.
1. Wanting the other partner to change.
“When clients come in for couple therapy they want a change,” said Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Arlington Heights, Ill. “However, sometimes what they really want is for the therapy to change their partner’s behavior.”
For instance, they might want the therapist to change their partner’s spending habits. But they’d like to stay the same.
However, in couples therapy, “the target of change is the relationship,” Rastogi said. Both partners need to make changes in order to improve the relationship. Both need to change their perceptions and behaviors.
“For example, couples who want to change their fights over money will each need to examine their own patterns around money, and the role it plays in their relationship.”
2. Not acknowledging your role.
Another common — and related — obstacle is not taking responsibility for your role in your relationship problems. “Couples therapy can often feel like a courtroom for the therapist,” said Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples, premarital and newlywed counseling. That’s because both partners are trying to communicate their side and hoping to receive validation and feedback from each other, she said.
They might focus on what their partner did wrong by saying, “You did this” or “I did this because you did this,” Hansen said.
However, in order for couples therapy to be effective, both partners must acknowledge how they’re contributing to the argument or problem, and work on changing their behavior, she said. She shared this example: “I’m sorry, I know I did not approach my complaint in the best way. I will try to phrase things differently in the future.”
3. Keeping secrets.
Some partners start couples therapy with secrets — such as an affair or addiction — and they intend to keep those secrets, Rastogi said. However, “clients who continue to keep secrets from their spouse while engaging in couple therapy are fooling themselves and their loved ones, and creating barriers to achieve real change.”
If you’re keeping a secret from your spouse, consider its implications for your relationship, she said. “Secrets can sap trust and life out of marriages. They can morph into thick walls against interpersonal intimacy.”
(While you don’t have to share all your secrets, it’s best to reveal and work through any secrets that are currently affecting your relationship, Rastogi said.)
“Your therapist can assist you with this process, and your relationship will likely be stronger and have greater integrity due to this.”
Rastogi also noted that every clinician has a different way of handling secrets. She explains to couples before they start therapy that she won’t keep secrets. As such, if a partner reveals they’re having an affair, they either need to share it with their partner or they can’t continue therapy.
“I believe this helps me best serve the needs of both members of the couple while doing effective work.”
4. Not following through.
Couples may agree on what needs to change in a relationship in order for it to improve, Hansen said. But following through or applying helpful techniques during an argument can be difficult, she said.
“To overcome this obstacle, couples must learn to be patient with one another and work together as a team.” Hansen encourages her clients to identify “catchphrases” for times that an argument is getting out of control, such as: “we’re off track”; “we’re spiraling”; “we need to stop”; “break” or “pause”; or “something playful [or] anything to interrupt the fight.”
She also suggests learning to identify and then expressing when you’re becoming emotionally overwhelmed. One clue is when you “feel like you are too overwhelmed to listen or engage in a productive manner.”
And she encourages clients to take a 20-minute break to relax and refocus. “Both parties must use the time to calm themselves, and both must agree to return to the discussion after 20 minutes.”
5. Not trusting the process.
Couples might enter therapy wanting a quick fix or again wanting the clinician to tell their partner that they need to change, Hansen said. However, to improve your relationship, it’s important for couples to trust the therapy process, she said.
“…[T]o really get to the root of your marital conflict and begin the healing process, you and your spouse will have to invest your time and commit to learning how to be vulnerable with one another, expressing feelings rather than thoughts, acknowledging your role in the dance, and learning how to hear what you partner is truly saying.”
6. Waiting too long.
“Many couples use couple therapy as their last stop before heading off to their divorce attorney or court,” Rastogi said. However, these couples are less likely to improve their relationship, she said.
If a conflict is negatively affecting your marriage, and doesn’t go away, seek help early. Avoid waiting and hoping that it’ll pass. “It won’t.”
If you are going to therapy as a last resort, Rastogi stressed the importance of keeping an open mind. “Late help-seeking couples” also can use therapy to “weigh their choices, resolve some conflicts or even plan a structured separation that keeps their relationship civil and functional.”
Ultimately, see a couples therapist as soon as possible. “If you and your partner are struggling, reach out for help while you are both willing to make changes and are invested in the relationship,” Hansen said.